The Rose Red City
There are many magnificent archaeological sites in the world and the Rose Red City of Petra is undoubtedly one of the greatest. It had long been an ambition to visit and it was top of our list when exploring Jordan. Here is a guide to a visit to Petra.
The most famous image of Petra that of Al-Khazneh, The Treasury (the one you see in the film Indiana Jones and the Last Crusade) and we knew that we would walk through a dramatic canyon, known as As-Siq, to reach it. What we didn’t realise was quite how extensive the site is.
THE HISTORY OF PETRA
Petra was built by the Nabateans, an ancient Arab tribe, around the 1st Century BCE. The Nabateans were involved with caravaneering, trading in goods from all over the Middle East and Far East, and they became very wealthy protecting the region’s trade routes. Goods came from as far as China and India. What was fascinating about the Nabateans was that they were a clever, enlightened people. They believed in cultural inclusivity and appropriated technology from all over the world, absorbing influences from the places they traded with. You can see many different architectural styles throughout Petra.
In 106 CE the city was overtaken by the Romans who renamed it Arabia Petraea. The city did thrive under Roman rule for many years but its importance as a trade route declined as sea trading routes developed and became more important for transporting goods. It was significantly damaged by an earthquake in the 4th Century CE. It declined further during the Byzantine era and the city eventually was abandoned became ‘lost’ for centuries. It was re-discovered by explorer Johann Ludwig Burckhardt in 1812.
VISIT PETRA IN JORDAN – PRACTICALITIES
The site is located around 240km from Jordan’s capital city, Amman. The time it takes to reach the area does vary depending on the traffic, especially in Amman, which can be quite congested, but also the route you take. It’s around three hours by car on the modern desert highway or five hours on the King’s Highway. It is possible to do a day trip to Petra from Amman by bus, leaving early in the morning and returning in the evening, but the visit would be very rushed. It is also possible to reach the site using a hire car (the driving would be easy except in Amman where the roads are quite chaotic) or via a private tour – there are many options available.
You can’t stay in Petra itself (edit – that is, there are no hotels in Petra), but there is a town called Wadi Musa nearby. Our hotel was about a ten minute walk from the site entrance at Wadi Musa, which was a further kilometre away from the start of the Siq. Included in the ticket price is a horse ride to the Siq, which we declined. We don’t feel comfortable using animals when we are travelling as we can never be sure how they are treated, so avoided these. We prefer to walk anyway. Since we visited, an initiative has been established to use electric vehicles that will replace the horse-drawn carriages.
We had two full days to explore. We needed them. You cannot enter the site without purchasing a ticket at the visitor’s centre at Wadi Musa and we recommend finding a guide for at least part of your visit. We found the most delightful guide at the visitor’s centre who was with us the first morning; he showed us Petra’s main features and explained a lot of the history. We spent the rest of the time there exploring the site for ourselves. (This link will take you to current entrance fees and costs for guides.)
Just before the entrance to the Siq you can see the Obelisk Tomb and the Bab as-Siq Triclinium.
Then you enter the gorge itself. The Siq is about 1200 m long. It is deep (up to 80m in places), at times narrow, and stunningly beautiful. You can see all sorts of natural features, rock formations and fossils, as well as the remains of carvings showing caravans and camels.
The photo shows drainage channels carved into the rock, inspired by Chinese bamboo irrigation channels, which carried water to Petra.
Then, at the end of the walk, you get a tantalising glimpse…
…of the Treasury, Al Khazneh. It’s actually a tomb of a 1st century Nabatean king. It’s about 30m wide and over 40m high. As with all the tombs at Petra, it was carved from the top down. (This process is similar to the amazing underground churches of Lalibela in Ethiopia.) You can see lots of indentations in the sandstone at the side of the structure. No-one is really sure about what they were for, but they could have been used by the craftsmen and masons for climbing to the top.
The Treasury is just the start of the site. It’s the only place you are not allowed to go inside. Everywhere else is open for exploration. There are no restrictions and no barriers so you need to take care.
From the Treasury you follow the Street of Facades, which has rows of tombs, all intricately carved from the rock.
At the end of this street is the amphitheatre, carved into the rock, which appears to have a Roman influence. Its maximum capacity was around 7000 people.
At the end of the street you can see further Nabotean tombs to the right…
If you make a left turn you will walk along a colonnaded street, with marble pavement much of which is still preserved, which was effectively the city centre. It would have been lined with temples and public buildings.
At the end of the street is the route to the Monastery.
We climbed 800 steps to Ad-Deir, The Monastery, which we found to be a moderate walk. It is classed as difficult on the trail guide because some of the steps have worn over the years. We needed to scramble a little on some sections.
When we arrived we were delighted to discover that the Monastery was as spectacular at the Treasury.
If you look closely at the photo below you can see a man sitting on the building, high up on the central colonnade. We had watched him climb all the way up the adjacent cliff face and then onto the building itself, leaping across the colonnades with absolute confidence – an amazing form of parkour. It was utterly terrifying watching him.
EXPLORING THE TRAILS AT PETRA
There are numerous trails you can follow, some of which involve pretty tough climbs where the stairs have been eroded. The guide indicates the options available and the trails are well marked with brown signs.
The other walk we did was the Al Khubtha trail, a climb to view The Treasury from above. We met a woman who was on her way down who said she had counted the number of steps, and sadly we can’t quite remember what her count was, but it was several hundred. The view was fantastic when we reached the summit.
We also really loved the colours of the rock as we explored the various tombs. The white is silica, the red is iron oxide and the yellow, sandstone.
It is possible to see a night-time sound and light show at the Treasury. Walking through the Siq in the dark to see the Treasury lit up by lanterns is an ethereal sight.
PRACTICALITIES TO VISITING PETRA IN JORDAN
There are restrooms on site at either end of the colonnaded street and nearby cafes which offer refreshments. We recommend the lemon juice with mint drink – it’s refreshing and delicious.
It’s advisable to wear a sunhat and use sun protection if you are exploring the walking trails as there is no shelter from the sun. Good walking shoes are advisable. Make sure you carry water with you. Use the bins provided to dispose of rubbish.
Keep on the trails. You may meet local people as you walk – we ended up chatting with some people on the Al Khubtha trail and were invited to enjoy a cup of tea with them. (We weren’t asked for money but we did offer a contribution towards the tea.)
AFTER YOUR VISIT TO PETRA – A FOODIE EVENING AT THE PETRA KITCHEN
After a full day’s exploring we were pretty tired and there’s not a lot to do at Wadi Musa. But we did manage to join a cookery course at the Petra Kitchen on one of the evenings. One of the chefs was the uncle of the guide who showed us around the site. We learned to make Jordanian food and then eat it – a fine way to spend an evening. We made Shourbat Adas (lentil soup), Baba Ganoush, Fatoush, Tabbouleh, Tahina salad, Galayet Bandora, Araies Iahma (Bedouin pizza – pittas stuffed with minced meat and covered with Galayet Bandora) as a mezza. The main course was Maqluba, an upside-down hotpot, which was scrummy. Sadly, we were too busy cooking – and eating – to take photos! But we do plan to cook the recipes at home and will no doubt blog about them in the future.
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Cheese and Toasting
There is a legend that when God was handing out land to the nations of the world, the Georgians were so busy feasting that they lost their place in the queue and there was no land left for them. But when they invited God to join the party, he enjoyed himself so much that he gave them the best bits of land that he had been saving for himself. Enjoying good food and wine is an important element of life in this part of the world and the local people have a wonderful toasting tradition in Georgia.
We visited a number of families, ostensibly to see how they produced wine or made cheese, but everywhere we stopped we were greeted by the most amazing hospitality and generosity. Meals would last several hours and involve large quantities of superb fresh food along with overflowing glasses of wine and chacha (grape vodka). Most houses we visited grew their own grapes and made their own wine. Many had a still.
Toasting is a tradition in Georgia. You don’t tend to drink at your own pace, but at the behest of a toastmaster (tamada). A merikipe is on hand to make sure that glasses are always full and the wine never seems to stop flowing. Georgians toast their enemies with beer (we had a hilarious enemy-toasting session with our guide one night) – it is wine and chacha that are appropriate for feasting. We didn’t go to a formal grand feast (supra), but had many, many meals at guesthouses and family homes and we followed the toasting tradition each time. Meals are designed to last the evening – they comprise several scrummy dishes laid out on the table. Everyone just helps themselves and offers food to their dining companions. And, of course, every meal included a ubiquitous, delicious and calorie-loaded cheese pie (khachapuri).
Toasting Tradition in Georgia – Etiquette
At regular intervals throughout the evening the tamada proposes a toast. Everyone adds their wishes and much wine/chacha is consumed. If you are toasted, it’s appropriate to thank everyone for their good wishes and later ask the tamada if it is okay to reciprocate with a toast of your own. One guesthouse supplied us with a jug (probably about 4 bottles worth) of strong homemade red wine made from the Sapaveri grape, which was utterly splendid and eminently drinkable, to accompany the enormous evening meal they had provided.
We ate with the family. Our driver was both tamada and merikipe and led the toasting throughout the evening. (At the end of the day, naturally, when no further driving was required.) On finishing the jug our driver, an excellent merikipe, asked if we wanted more wine. We said we’d join him in a tipple but only if he was partaking, not realising that he would return with another enormous jug. Gulp.
You can toast anything and everything. We were toasted several times as ‘easy guests’ (people who were thoroughly enjoying the trip, didn’t make a fuss, and were always on time) as well as ‘guests that didn’t go to bed at 9pm but were happy to stay up late feasting and enjoying the hospitality of our hosts.’ We reciprocated by toasting our hosts, Georgia, Georgian hospitality, wine, food, cheese pies, family, friends, finding Mr Right (for our guide), young people, old people, men, women, happiness, health, friendship between our countries, anything. We easily knocked back the second jug. Amazingly we weren’t hungover the following morning. Just as well as we were due to visit three different vineyards for wine tasting – hair of the dog and all that. We did rather stagger round the Kakheti region that day.
What we didn’t realise until the last day was that we had been doing the toasting all wrong. We’d been having a sip/swig from the glass per toast which seemed to us to be the best way to regulate the drinking (we’d copied our hosts, who had the same idea). Apparently the toasting tradition in Georgia meant that were supposed to drain the wine/chacha glass each time. Oops!
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Taken with A Pinch of Salt
The Dead Sea is one of the strangest places on the planet. It is a salt lake located in a depression at the lowest place on earth, over 400m below sea level, which is bordered by Israel and the West Bank to the west and Jordan to the East. Visiting the Dead Sea in Jordan was an essential part of our itinerary on our journey through this fascinating country.
The area has an odd microclimate – it’s 10⁰C warmer at the coast than in the rest of the country. And the Dead Sea really is dead. At around 35% salinity it can’t support any life. Any unfortunate fish that happens to swim in there from the river Jordan lasts but moments. There is no activity on the water either – you don’t see any boats or water sports. The water is so saline it basically destroys machinery. The only thing you can really do there is bathe. And bathing in the Dead Sea is undoubtedly an experience.
The north end of the sea is mainly comprised of resort hotels of varying degrees of poshness, which have private beaches where you can do all sorts of spa type stuff, and the rest is rather beautiful coastline. We travelled along the shore on the Jordanian side on our way to the rose red city of Petra.
There is a pillar of salt, considered by locals to be Lot’s wife from the biblical story.
We decided to stay at a resort for just one night. The hotels on the north coast in Jordan are fairly self-contained and you are pretty much tied to the activities and restaurants there. For example, it was difficult for us to find somewhere to eat at establishments outside the resort and outside restaurants are more likely to cater to tourists. Our hotel had its own beach located about a two minute drive via a free shuttle bus (if you were lazy) or a ten minute walk from the swimming pools. Initially we wondered why there were pools when the purpose of our visit was to swim in the sea but it became clear later when we bathed.
Eternal Youth and Beauty?
Dead Sea mud apparently contains all sorts of minerals that are supposed to do wonders for your skin. And, like the Blue Lagoon in Iceland, you can buy a plethora of products containing miraculous mud at hugely inflated prices that are guaranteed to help you achieve eternal beauty. Or something. We headed down to the beach and caked ourselves in free mud from a bucket by the water’s edge before heading into the sea.
When visiting the Dead Sea in Jordan we absolutely had to bathe. It is impossible to sink in the Dead Sea. You walk in and keep walking. And then, when the water is about at chest height, you take another step and realise that you should be able to touch the sandy floor, but you can’t, yet the water is still at chest height.
It is also impossible to swim in the Dead Sea. When trying to do a simple breast-stroke you are so buoyant that your bottom kind of flips up, pushing your face into the water, which is a really bad idea because if you get any water in your eyes it stings like crazy. You know that feeling when you’ve been chopping chillies and forget to wash your hands and then brush your eye? That burning agony? Well, it’s ten times worse if you splash Dead Sea water in your eye. The water feels oily and hurts like hell.
The easiest way to bathe is simply to float in a sitting position. It’s very comfortable. If you want to move around, sculling gently seemed to produce the required propulsion. We didn’t take pictures of ourselves reading books or anything but it really would be perfectly possible.
When you emerge from the sea you really need to shower off quickly and get all the salt off your skin and bathing suits. Any fabric splashed with water becomes stiff as a board and encrusted with salt. Fresh water showers are located on the beaches, not far from the shore, so that you can clean up quickly.
We’re not convinced that the mud did endow us with eternal beauty but bathing was an most definitely an interesting experience.
Natural Beauty of the Dead Sea
What was truly beautiful was the salt-encrusted shoreline.
We did wonder whether Dead Sea salt was edible as most sea salt can be used for seasoning and preserving. However, the merest (accidental) taste of Dead Sea salty water will confirm beyond any doubt that in its basic form it tastes revolting. The mineral composition is very different to standard sea salt, and tastes extremely bitter, so processing is needed to remove these in order to ensure safe – and tastier – use for human consumption.
(Incorporating the easiest recipe in the world…)
Lebanon is a really compact country. It’s so easy to get pretty much anywhere from its capital Beirut within a couple of hours. Lebanon is about half the size of Wales (the standard international unit for country size), has the most fantastic Mediterranean coastline and, moving inland, also boasts wonderful mountain ranges within just a couple of hours’ drive of the sea. Apparently during the winter it is possible to go skiing in the morning and swim in the Mediterranean in the afternoon.
The coastline has settlements dotted along it every 50km or so from north to south or indeed from south to north; this distance apparently being about a day’s journey for local sea traders in ancient times.
From Tyre in the south, close to the Israel border, where you can explore ancient ruins on land and gaze as they disappear into the sea; they are from a time when sea levels were much lower.
Sidon, with its crusader castle (with a mosque added later in the Ottoman era).
Beirut is a fascinating city with a turbulent history. Again, located on the coast, it has a waterfront promenade called the Corniche, with two remarkable rock formations rising from the sea. They are called Pigeons’ Rock, which seems wildly inappropriate given their splendour. Rock of Raouché, for the neighbourhood they are located near, feels like a more suitable moniker.
A day trip to the north of Beirut will take you to the cities of Byblos and Tripoli. The latter has the most amazing citadel – Citadel of Raymond de St Gilles which was built in the early 12th century. We were able to explore it, climbing over the extensive site and admiring the view from the ramparts.
The city itself was fun to explore and we have happy memories of wandering through the nearby souk (marketplace) where stallholders would come out of their shops to say hello (with absolutely no pressure to buy).
We spent a night in Byblos. It is one of the oldest inhabited cities in the world, it is thought that it has been occupied since 8800BC. It is thought that the word ‘bible’ is derived from Byblos. It is a fascinating town to explore and has a castle and a number of museums.
There are a number of bars and restaurants by the harbour area.
A local restaurant right by the harbour offered mezze, which we had long wanted to try. The location was perfect.
Mezze is often described as middle-eastern tapas – a selection of small dishes shared by everyone at the table. Amongst the many dishes on offer we had creamy hummus heavily laced with tahini and drizzled with olive oil, smoky baba ganoush (aubergine dip), crispy falafel (deep fried chickpea fritters), foul (bean stew, pronounced full, not fowl!), spicy, herby kibbe (small meatballs of lamb mince and cracked wheat) with multiple salads. All of these dishes were accompanied by salad, olives, flat breads and a very big bowl of chips. Of course there was too much to finish. We needed to take some back to the hotel for snacking on the next morning.
As the sun set over the glittering Mediterranean, we ordered a couple of beers in advance of the main mezze attraction. After all, it was going to take a little while to prepare our feast. Our friendly host offered us a pre-mezze snack as he prepared the food.
It’s the easiest recipe in the world: Cut carrots into sticks, squeeze lemon juice over them and sprinkle with salt.
It’s a perfect – and really delicious – accompaniment to a nice cold drink. And probably the healthiest bar snack in the world. It’s something we eat regularly with or without beer.
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Roman Streets and Sweet Treats
The Roman ruins at Jerash Jordan are some of the best preserved in the world. Jerash is within an easy 50-ish km drive of the capital Amman. The site makes for a fascinating day trip; covering a very large area it is possible to wander all over the city. It is definitely worth finding a guide who can point out all the features and explain the history and the architecture, especially as there aren’t many signs or information points, although beware as they may encourage you to buy stuff you don’t really want to buy from various vendors who can be found waiting for tourists.
The arch of Hadrian (who had already started construction of the wall in the north of England) was erected around 129-130 AD , when the Emperor visited Jerash.
The hippodrome was an enormous arena which was used for chariot races and gladiator fights. Sometimes chariot races are re-enacted in the space. Sadly, not when we visited.
The colonnaded forum, an area designed as a marketplace but used for social gatherings, including important political meetings, is stunning. Its oval shape is very unusual.
The nymphanium, a monument to the nymphs, was fed by an aqueduct.
It’s possible to walk down the roman street, also known as a cardo and as straight as Roman roads are reputed to be, again lined with columns. The road’s surface is original.
There’s an amphitheatre where you can stand on the stage and let your inner thespian out. Even if you don’t feel up to a full performance of your favourite speech, it’s worth standing on the stage and just speaking – the acoustic design of the theatre ensures that your voice can be heard with remarkable clarity, even normal speech levels.
And at the end of a day’s exploration of the Roman ruins in Jerash, you are likely to be peckish. We were. Amman has some really excellent restaurants so on our return to the capital we went to Habibah to eat kanafeh.
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Er, we did. Georgia (the one that’s always on my-my-my-my-my-my-my-mind, not the one where the midnight train goes) is famous for feasting. It is thought that wine was possibly invented in Georgia. And we all know that the thing that goes best with wine is cheese*. And the country is famous for its cheese pies including the Georgian cheese boat.
We ate cheese every day on our trip. It felt like our arteries had the consistency of Primula by the time we arrived home but it didn’t matter – all the cheese was utterly delicious. We tried many varieties including Meskh cheese which was like cheese strings, but not made of nasty chemicals, Imeruli cheese, a mild, tasty and very holey number from the Imereti region which can then be made into Sulguni which is most popular in the Samegrelo Region. We visited a family who demonstrated how to make Sulguni and then offered us lots of it with an unexpected feast for lunch. Georgian hospitality is simply unsurpassed.
Much of the cheese we consumed involved tasting the regional variations of the national dish – cheese pie or khachapuri – which was served at pretty much every meal we ate. Each pie contains about 150,000 calories but don’t worry, it’s worth it. The pie itself is bread based rather than pastry based and filled with varying amounts of cheese, from the relatively modest Imeruli pie which merely contains cheese inside the pie, to the more decadent Megruli which melts a few pounds of cheese on top, just in case the cheese inside doesn’t quite satisfy your cheesy cravings.
Imeruli is the most common type of cheese pie.
We ate this with most meals in central and eastern Georgia – the capital Tblisi and its surrounding regions.
The western part of Georgia lies on the Black Sea cost. Batumi is a resort and is clearly a party town.
THE LEGENDARY GEORGIAN CHEESE BOAT
It was in Batumi that we discovered the Georgian cheese boat, Acharuli Khachapuri, a monster from the Adjaran region. In keeping with Batumi’s flamboyant style, this is the daddy of cheese pies. It comprises a bread dough crust in the shape of a boat, filled with local cheese plus an egg and is topped off with an enormous knob of butter. You have to mix everything up (the egg cooks very slightly and the butter melts away so that you can pretend that it wasn’t there in the first place) so you end up with very buttery cheesy scrambled egg in a massive boat shaped piece of bread. It was suggested at the restaurant that we order a boat each. We insisted that we share one. One was more than enough but, oh, so delicious.
*Actually, it isn’t. Cheese tends to dull the palette, so if you’re serious about tasting wine you’re better off not eating anything at all and keeping your tastebuds in tip-top condition. But, of course, if you’re just out to have a good time, wine and cheese together is a delightful combination and entirely wonderful.
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Middle eastern desserts are not only delicious they are also quite addictive. One of the defining elements of a Jordanian dessert we tried when visiting the country was the sweet, sweet syrup that soaks into and pervades the pastry or dough that forms the base. The sweetness is probably a good thing as it does limit your ability to scoff vast quantities of these scrumptious sweets.
The magic ingredient in Kanafeh is cheese. Kanafeh comprises pastry or dough, saturated in syrup and layered with a very slightly salty cheese, traditionally nabulsi or akkawi, which adds a comforting and savoury contrast to counterbalance the sweetness. Kanafeh can take a variety of forms – some use vermicelli type noodles as the base, others a pastry type dough. The syrup can be flavoured with rose or orange water to give a light fragrance to the dessert.
Habibah in Amman have been in business for several decades. It’s easy to see why. They specialise in Jordanian dessert and their kanafeh is superb.
The kanafeh we tried was based on a pastry dough with layers of cheese. Topped off with pistachios for crunch and a nice green colour, and served warm, it is an absolutely delicious way to round off any meal. Or you could just order a really large portion and eat that instead of a meal – it’s worth it.
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The Nagorno Karabakh region of Armenia is an area where there is territorial dispute with neighbouring Azerbaijan. Although it had been a war zone since the late 1980s a cease-fire had been established in 1994 and, when we travelled to Armenia a few years later, the local guide felt that it was safe to visit. Along with a group of other visitors we were invited to travel to the region to see the Noravank Monastery and the hotel we had been staying at, in Armenia’s capital Yerevan, threw in a picnic lunch.
Noravank is a beautiful monastery, built in typical Armenian style. It contains a number of buildings, the dominant structure of which is Surb Astvatsatsin (Holy Mother of God). As with many Armenian monasteries there are a number of khachkars – carved stone slabs which each bear a cross – which can also been seen around the complex.
When we arrived at the site we discovered that we weren’t the only visitors. A local family were gathered together around a makeshift table and were clearly having a celebration. A fleece lay draped across the branches of a nearby tree, a sheep having been slaughtered at the site and was now roasting over a fire.
We know how we would feel if a coach-load of tourists turned up to a family celebration, that is, a bit miffed. But Armenia is still a relatively unusual destination and, when we visited, tourists were rare. We were welcomed with open arms.
We had no idea what event the family were celebrating. We could speak about seven words of Armenian and they could speak no English. The family beckoned to us to join them. Of around twelve visitors in the tourist group, only we and one other joined the party. Such a shame – the other nine missed out on a fantastic celebration, totally their loss. (You can see the grumps in the background of the photo below, sitting on a hill, waiting for their hotel picnic and watching us having a good time.)
The family had clearly prepared – they had brought 40 buckets of home-made wine with them and they generously plied us with drink. We were offered barbequed lamb so fresh it had been bleating just hours earlier, flat breads, pickled walnuts, the freshest salads and fruit. All delicious. Food always tastes better with friends, even if you have only known them for minutes.
This happened over 20 years ago. We still have precious memories of that afternoon; of a most delicious meal, of gorging on wine, toasting a group of people who had been kind enough to invite some foreign visitors to their party, of being made to feel unbelievably welcome. We could not properly speak their language (although we were able to thank them in Armenian), they could not speak ours. We had no idea what the correct etiquette was, but we learned that day that communication does not have to be verbal. What we could express was our gratitude – with a huge smile, a raised glass and a farewell hug. We may have been picnicking in a region where there was a territorial dispute between two countries, but our experience quite simply reflected the very best of humanity.